A special Christmas experience in Cincinnati

One of my colleagues invited Maarten and I to a 'crossroads' Christmas show. At first I wasn't sure what this was about but after asking a few of my colleagues 2 things became clear:

1) everybody loves that show: it's very well known and respected
2) crossroads is a non denominational church which means they welcome everybody, no matter if you're catholic or protestant. Some people therefore would say it's not a 'real' church, as they wouldn't focus on specific 'catholic' rules for example.

2 colleagues also went and they were very friendly to give us a lift and to take us to a great Thai place beforehand where we found out that in the States people first cut all of their food and then they put down their knife and eat everything with their fork in their right hand! Our colleagues tried it out our way and said it was very very difficult for them to eat with knife and fork. Very funny :) also,we had dinner at 5h15. And that's not even very weird here :)

And then we went to the show. Don't imagine a church like the ones we know in Europe. Picture a huge building, from the outside it looked more like a department store or a hypermarket... And thousands of people (really!), all there to attend this Christmasshow... I started to understand why crossroads is also known as a 'megachurch'.

Introduced by the head priest who turned out to be a cool funny quite young guy in jeans, the show began.

75 minutes of amazing ballet, songs, theatre and acts later we were definitely in the Christmas mood, even standing up to clap and sing... I guess you had to be there to believe it!

A few links to help you to give an idea: a teaser video of the show and the opening song and animation!

Merry Christmas all!


Our American adventure episodes 1 & 2

A few short videos for you to enjoy!

Episode 1 - Moving from Paris to Cincinnati

Episode 2 - Finding a place to live


What will I remember from my first week in Cincinnati?

The people
Are still incredibly friendly. We have received invitations to X-mas parties, a X-mas show, a dinner and a houseparty. On top of that there are the lifts to work, lifts to Kroger and so it goes on.

People here smile. They stop for STOP signs on the road even when there isn't a car in sight. They let pedestrians cross the road. They are not in a hurry, not stressed. They breathe. I love them.

dunnhumby USA
I am proud to work for dunnhumby USA. They are impressive: from the amazing Holiday party to the fully prepared desk, laptop, writing pads, pens on my first day to the HR people who don't show if they are sick of me running over to their desks twice a day with random questions. I have started my induction sessions with my own team and am sure I'll learn a lot from them. In my first week I have attended an 'In the Know' session about price & promotions and a Kroger team meeting with free lunch and an interesting business update. First impressions definitely very positive!

A colleague of mine invited Maarten and I to a party at his place. He said there would be a band that would play Bluegrass music. I said "blue-what"? And so I got introduced to Bluegrass. Wikipedia says it's a form of American roots music, a sub-genre of country music, with mixed roots in Scottish, English and Welsh traditional music and inspired by the music of African-Americans through incorporation of jazz elements. 4 of the 6 members of the band were from dunnhumby and they were really really good. They were playing when we arrived a bit before 8 and were still going when we left a bit before midnight... I hope we get to see them again!

The gym classes + Tina's
dunnhumby USA does not only have a gym, they also offer gym classes, several times a day at really competitive prices. I tried out the zumba, yoga and step classes and loved all 3 of them. Zumba because it was fun and easy, yoga because it was relaxing and challenging and step because it was very hard and the first time I did some weights!

Of course I shouldn't forget Tina's to balance off with the sports I did :-) Ealing had the North Star, Paris the Dido and Cincinnati has Tina's. Cheap prices, jugs of beer, sports on television, meeting new people from dunnhumby... What else do you need?

Maarten Verschuere
The first few days can be quite stressful, because you don't know anyone and literally everything is new (the people, the office, the American accent and words...). It helps so much to know there are 2 of us and to share our disbelief at some of the things that happened to us during the first week (on average, 3 people a day asked one of us if we have kids - just to give an example, whereas this NEVER happened to us in Paris in the almost 2 years we've lived there!).

Maarten now also joined Twitter, so if you want to follow him, follow @maartenforsure and his new blog is http://maartenforsure.blogspot.com. I'm still on Twitter on @louisedejager!

Let me know what you think of my first impressions and if you want to learn about anything else!


Not at all the Americans I thought they would be

We arrived in Cincinnati on Saturday and a few hours later, we were expected at the dunnhumby USA Holiday party, the equivalent of the English and French X-mas parties.

I admit that I had a picture in mind of how that party would be. I wasn't sure if people would drink alcohol, if there would be a lot of dancing going on, if the food would be nice...

As soon as we walked through the door, it dawned on me that I would get rid of my prejudices very soon. The venue was amazing, and with 'dunnhumby value' specially made cocktails the tone was set. Yes, there was alcohol, and not a little bit. I hardly saw anyone not drinking to be honest! This was going to be like any other dunnhumby party :-) I admit I felt a bit relieved, although I wasn't in for a big night due to the jetlag.

The food was special, first walking dinner with sushi, then a sit down meal with different courses of tapas. People don't agree on whether or not the food was good, but I was definitely impressed!

By the time the dessert was on, the dance floor was filled up. Huge plastic flashy rings were given to the ladies and I just loved that small detail!

So, my first dunnhumby USA party really showed me that any of the prejudices I had were just not true.

And now, after 2 days at work, I realise that my American colleagues are VERY sporty (at least 2 of my female colleagues have run 5 marathons each, and that's in a team of 9 women...), so I'll have to start trying harder... I started with a great Zumba class today!

The cliches that turned out to be true so far are:
- you do need a car in Cincinnati or you miss out on great restaurants, shows, French talking groups, grocery shopping...
- Americans are really friendly. One colleague invited us to several of her X-mas evenings + New Year's Eve. Can you believe that? So on the 22nd of December we're going to a big family party of hers. Very curious and still a bit astonished that we actually got invited.

That's all for now - I'm pretty sure this will be my first and last blog post on American cliches as not a lot of them still hold true in my point of view.


Breathtakingly heartwarming

For dunnhumby France and Aude, Aurélia, Caroline, Cécile, Chloé, Elsa, Emma and Lucia in particular.

My last day in the office.
Team meeting.

My 8 closest colleagues, friends, do a presentation on how much I will be missed.
I'm touched.

Then follow tons of pictures of my time at dunnhumby France
All those amazing memories!
I'm getting emotional.

The song "Louise" from Clouseau is launched.
I feel like crying.

Time to speech.
In French.

I think I can cope and start to speak.
My voice breaks.

I pull myself together and tell the team how I've made friendships for life in dunnhumby France and how they were sometimes more like a family to me.

I briefly look at a few of those close friends who stand on the side and see one of them crying.

But instead of harder it actually becomes easier to talk because all of a sudden I realise what a lucky girl I am to have made such friends.

Merci pour tout, les filles. Je vous adore x


Parisian arrogance

This weekend was my last weekend in Paris.

In my blog I haven’t hidden the fact that sometimes over the past months I have been very annoyed with the Parisian arrogance. But this weekend, I was all zen. It was my last weekend in wonderful Paris. Because for all my complaints, I still love this city, the amazing buildings, the unique sky, the light…

So this weekend I decided not to get annoyed or frustrated, I was just going to enjoy it. Until… 2 Parisians just couldn’t help it and gave me 2 perfect examples of exactly that what had annoyed me so much in the previous months... A bit like when you would ask to see the fish you want to order in a restaurant and they bring it to you on a platter. That kind of examples.

The first one was on the tube. I should have known that taking the tube in my last weekend was a risk but I had become overconfident in my positive vibe. A very thin lady thought she didn’t have enough space because of the not so thin guy next to her and rather than an “excuse me sir, would you mind giving me a little bit more space” she shouted at him as if he had personally caused the hunger in Somalia. Poor guy. And poor lady, for actually being that aggressive for something that insignificant. To a simple soul like me that just means that she must be truly unhappy.

Then I went into the Fnac. I wanted to check if they had the first book of “Game of Thrones” (loved the DVD!) series in English. 2 ladies in front of me. The second one doesn’t wait for her turn and just asks the Fnac lady a question, but really quickly (“doyouhavethisbookinpaperback?” “No”). You would think that losing 30 seconds doesn’t really matter, but apparently it does, because the first lady then spent at least 2 full minutes shouting at the other lady. I just stood there smiling, keeping calm and waiting until lady 1 would finally ask her question. It goes without saying I didn’t try to ask the Fnac lady my question during their rant ;) (and btw, when I asked later there wasn’t an English version, you need to order it – bugger).

These 2 examples made me realise that when in a big crowd in Paris, I had started to adopt a “Paris-face”. Whenever I’d be in a public place, especially on the tube, or queuing in a shop, I’d look very serious, slightly annoyed with a pfffffffffffffff attitude – the thing I breathed was: “do not dare to shout at me”. And no one ever did. But at what cost…

So, I’ll stop complaining (sooo Parisian…) and will just admit that I AM EXTREMELY EXCITED about moving to the country of the most friendly people ever, the United States of America. I’ll keep you posted on how “real” that friendliness is, as a big European cliché about Americans is that they are friendly but that it is very superficial (read: they don’t réally mean it). For now, I much prefer the idea of someone being “fake friendly” over “really arrogant, aggressive and angry”!

3 more days to go and 3 more nights – with one evening with my girlfriends and 2 work X-mas parties (one of my work, one of my husband), the final days seem to be very promising! Also because my French friends and colleagues really are not at all like the people described above – just in case they read this ;)

xoxo (Gossip girl mood – yep, it happens)



Something I will miss from Paris...

I will never forget how a few weeks after I arrived in the French office, I suddenly heard a weird noise from outside. We are on the 10th floor so it was quite loud and it was a sound I couldn't identify.

I went to have a look through the window and to my astonishment it was a group of horses who walked calmly in the street! My guess is that they are trained to get used to cars and noise for when they participate in parades.

Yesterday we heard the noise again as we were walking towards a restaurant in our lunch break and my colleague took a picture. This is probably the last time I will see them and that makes me a bit sad! Unless there are some horses that need to be trained in Cincinnati too of course :)

Here you go - impressive, no?


An empty book

13 more days in Paris. Suddenly our departure is coming closer quickly. In less than two weeks we’ll be sat in a plane that will take us to Cincinnati, Ohio. In the United States of America. Yes, sir!

Our agendas are more or less empty for now, which is scary and amazing at the same time. It’s a future waiting to be written, like a blank book with empty pages.

The main characters will be my husband and I – that’s for sure. And that’s why this won’t be a sad, lonely story, full of homesickness. We’re in this together, as we were before in London and Paris. It will also mean some parts of the book will be written in Dutch, just to make sure we don’t forget our mother tongue :)

The story will be set in Cincinnati, along the Ohio river.

The first chapter will definitely include the start of new jobs, househunting, Christmas and New Year celebrations, an ice-hockey game and some gym classes (just in case we like the American diet).

That’s all we know for sure.

Who will be the other characters: our friends, colleagues, neighbours?

Where will the stories happen, in a flat in downtown Cincinnati, a little house in Covington or a bit more east in Mount Adams, Lookout…?

Which stories will we tell? It’s impossible to predict.

In any case, I promise I’ll keep you posted as we write the first chapter in this new life!


Great Voltaire quote

Let us read and let us dance - two amusements that will never do any harm to the world. VOLTAIRE


Travel tips for Shanghai

The first stop in our journey was Shanghai (click here to see our full itinerary). The week before our trip was very busy at work and I think it’s fair to say some rest was needed. So for us Shanghai meant: eat well, sleep a lot, try to get into the Chinese rhythm, fight the jetlag, swim, walk around a bit.

General impression
• prepared for a culture shock arriving in China, but it didn’t come
• Shanghai = New York. You can easily forget that you are in China when you just look at the buildings.
• Lots of smog
• Everything is written in Chinese and English, easy to get around

Anting Villa Hotel, in the French concession. Great area (“European”, lots of trees, doesn’t feel like the big city), great hotel. Quite expensive (but worth it).
Donghu hotel – Donghu street. Cheaper than Anting Villa but still hotel standard. Biggest advantage is the 25m pool where we went to relax and work out. Also has a fitness. Don’t be surprised if the Chinese people don’t close the curtains in the shower room next to the swimming pool – shame doesn’t seem to exist

Simply Thai, in the French concession
Dolar Shop Hot Pot in Golden Eagle building – we met a colleague from dunnhumby China who ordered a lot of food for us. Hot pot is just a pot of cooking water with a sauce in which you put the food. It’s an interesting eating experience but it does take a long time (and a lot of effort) to get your food ready.
• Japanese all you can eat in our Donghu hotel grill your own meat. Really nice! For 150 yuan per person all you can eat & drink.
• Western food: People Square: McDonalds and Starbucks next to the Yu Garden in the Chinese neighbourhood
Grape in the French concession: decent but basic Chinese food, nice Chinese wine
• Uncle Fast Food – UFF: Chinese fastfood. Spicy meat with rice and an egg pudding to mix through your rice. An acquired taste. You should try though - we went to the one in the Shanghai Hongqiao train station

• Tube to Pudong, the modern part of town. Particularly loved the bottle opener building.
• Visit Bookazine in the bottle opener building to buy English books
• Tube to the Bund for the great skyline and the old buildings
• Walk, walk, walk and discover the more popular parts of Shanghai, with streets where they only sell music instruments
• Visit a Tesco express
• Nanjing road – not really for us, too many people, only shops
• People Square with Shanghai museum. This was free when we went there and that was a good thing because we weren’t too impressed by the collection of money, bronze, furniture… The calligraphy and Ming vases were nice though. Lots and lots of Chinese tourists
• Chinese neighbourhood. We thought we’d see the real China, but that only lasted a few streets and then it was back to a very touristy area, with the Yu-garden
• Take the train in Shanghai Hongqiao train station – the waiting room is very impressive because of the enormousness of it


Transport in China

To get there: flight with Aeroflot
We flew with Aeroflot from Paris to Shanghai with a stop in Moskou. All of the really negative feedback online had scared me quite a bit. However, the flights were on time, the flight attendants were very friendly, the food wasn’t worse than expected and warm. The transfer in Moskou went smoothly and our luggage was sent immediately to our final destination. For those who wonder: you don’t need a Russian transit visa if your waiting time is under 12 hours. The in-flight entertainment is very limited (only a few screens with only 1 movie playing), but we heard about this beforehand so we took our portable DVD player – problem solved!

In China we travelled by train so we didn’t use internal flights because we wanted to see the landscape and also it’s cheaper. The trains are really easy to book:
1. look online (www.travelchinaguide.com/china-trains) to find the train you need
2. write the information in English (train number, number of persons, timings, and whether you want a hard seat, hard sleeper or soft sleeper)
3. ask someone in the ho(s)tel to translate in Chinese. No one ever refused this to us, even when the ho(s)tels charge between 20 and 50 yuan to book 2 train tickets (a service we obviously didn’t use)
4. go to the train station, hand over the piece of paper. They show you on the screen what the different options are, you point at the one you want, pay and it’s done!

We tried both the hard seats and the hard sleepers, not the soft sleepers because they were ridiculously expensive (same price as a flight).

Hard seats
Hard seats are described online as the hell on earth and they are not. You are just sitting close to lots of Chinese people, mostly students and people who can’t necessarily afford the sleeper tickets. Most of the train wagons are hard seats. We did a 20-hour train trip on a hard seat, which included a night and that was a bit tough because the lights staid on during the entire trip. But for a day trip, the hard seats are fine. By the way, the seats aren’t hard, but soft, so don’t worry about that. It’s a great way to observe the Chinese :) - and don’t worry about that either, it’s perfectly ok in China to stare at people (we think, because we got stared at a lot – although that may also be because my husband wore shorts in November – something that seemed to be a first in China as we had people taking pictures of him and old ladies pointing their finger at his legs in surprise…).

Hard sleepers
Hard sleepers indicate wagons that have compartments with 6 beds in. We chose the upper and middle sleeper, not the lowest one because then you need to be very social and while that is cool for a bit, it’s a bit more difficult when you’re on a 10 hour trip and just want to read rather than practice your sign language with a nice old Chinese man. It was easy to sleep on the middle or top bunk. The lights went out around 23h and they come and wake you up when you’re approaching your stop.

The only downpoint of the trains are the toilets, which are just a hole in the ground and when you’re not used to this it takes a bit of practice (balance mainly). These “squat” toilets are also common in public places, but in all of our ho(s)tels the toilets were western. Btw did you know that in Dutch we call those "French toilets", whereas the French call it "Turkish toilets" :) Wikipedia says "squat toilets are also known as Arabic, French, Chinese, Japanese, Korean, Iranian, Indian, Turkish or Natural-Position toilets"!

For trips in Shanghai and Beijing we used the tube, which is very modern, easy to use and cheap. The ticket machines have an option to translate everything in English. You just indicate your end stop on the screen and pay (usually 2 yuan per person per trip). You get a card which you use to get through the gates (like the Oyster in London) and at your end stop you insert your card. Easy!

What you do need to know about the Chinese is that it is extremely important for them to conquer a place to sit in the tube. So the moment the doors open, they don’t let people out first, they just storm inside and try to get a seat. The first time it’s weird, and then you just do as the Chinese. When in Rome…

In the smaller cities without a tube, we used buses very frequently. It’s again very cheap (1 or 2 yuan per person per trip) and the standard travel guides provide all necessary bus numbers. We usually did take the name of our destination with us written in Chinese just to make sure the bus went to the correct stop. I would say that the bus is for the adventurous traveller. A few examples… Our guide book said to get off at the end stop. However, the bus was going in a loop and we noticed too late so we got off way too late, at a busstop which didn’t have the corresponding bus with no one around who spoke any English. We started walking until we found a very nice hotel where someone could indicate us the direction of the correct bus stop. On another occasion we went on a day trip. We took the bus at the train station, but in the evening the bus didn’t go back to the train station, but to a bus station, at at least 1 hour walking distance from the train station… so we walked. Don’t take the bus if you can’t stand surprises like this. We didn’t mind because we had the time and again, because it allowed us to travel like the Chinese.

3 weeks in China

One of the advantages of working in France is that you get a lot of holidays. And when I say a lot, I mean a LOT: 37 days (25 standard + 12 if you do a minimum of 40 hours a week)…

My principle is to use the days they give me and so for the first time in my 5 year old career (yes, already…), a 3 weeks holiday was possible!

The main trigger for this China trip was the magic of the Great Wall. “The only human element that is visible from space” – even when that’s a myth, we wanted to go and climb the Great Wall. So, we bought our tickets, and would start our trip in Shanghai and end it in Beijing.

I guess it’s safe to say that I am an organised person. For the MBTI fans, I am an ESTJ, and the J means that I feel more comfortable when things are planned, when I know what will happen. This China trip was an exercise in getting out of my comfort zone, because with all the “relocation to Cincinnati” stuff going on, we didn’t plan anything.

Ok, that’s perhaps a bit exagerated, this is what we had when we left:
• Plane tickets to Shanghai and leaving from Beijing 3 weeks later
• China visas, valid for a month
• 3 first and 3 last nights booked
• a draft itinerary
• an emergency internet address of a hotel in each of the cities on our itinary
• emergency medication mainly for stomach ache and some antibiotics

You may think this is very organised, but it’s not for China. Of all the people I spoke to who had been to China, most told me that it was probably not a good idea to leave like this. Well, we didn’t really have a choice as time caught up with us, so we left.

And guess what? It was perfectly fine! It was flexible, we could decide as we went along to stay just 2 nights or to stay an extra 2 days! I loved it. And we didn’t need any of the medication :)

So this is the trip we did:
• Shanghai – 4 nights
• Hangzhou with trip to Wuzhen – 3 nights
• Xi’an with trip to terracotta warriors and Huashan mountain – 2 nights
• Pingyao – 2 nights
• Datong with trip to the Yungang grottos – 2 nights
• Beijing with trip to the Great Wall – 5 nights

This made for a very easygoing trip. You could do more in 3 weeks, but this itinerary allowed for a quiet pace, which is exactly what we wanted.

In the next posts I will tell you my impressions of each city and some travel tips.



My favourite French poem

Le chat ouvrit les yeux,
Le soleil y entra,
Le chat ferma les yeux,
Le soleil y resta.

Voilà pourquoi, le soir,
Quand le chat se réveille,
J’aperçois dans le noir
Deux morceaux de soleil.

Maurice Carême, L’arlequin, 1972


And suddenly, Paris stinks...

I arrived in Paris 1 year and 7 months ago and I was in awe. Of course, I had been to Paris before, at least 10 times, but always as a tourist. So waking up on a Saturday morning and deciding to go strolling around île Saint-Louis, à l’improviste evening visits of the Tour Eiffel, eating baguettes whenever you want? It was a dream coming true!

And so I started living here and Paris surprised me in many ways. Independence by bike for not even 30€ a year, a swimming pool on the Seine in walking distance, the discovery of those delicious macarons and the realisation that people didn’t dress up (make up, short skirts) to go out! Vive Paris!

It was only recently that my dream image of Paris was shattered. Why? Because I’m leaving. Yes, not the other way around: I’m not leaving because I don’t like Paris anymore, I’m leaving and suddenly, Paris stinks… It stinks a lot. And almost everywhere. It’s as if people think it’s ok to use the streets of this amazing city as an urinoir. And with this, my mind started looking at Paris in a different way.

The difficulty of finding a flat and needing to document your entire life to get one, the hostility of people working in bars/restaurants/phone companies/social security services. Ever heard of customer service? I don’t think so… The dog poo on the streets, the dirt everywhere… The “well what can we do?” attitude about all the homeless people and those searching for food in garbage bins.

And finally, the pessimism. It’s a weird thing. An example: my company (English, international) has just introduced an amazing new employee benefit: all employees around the world get a day off on their birthday. This was announced yesterday and effective immediately. First reaction online from my English and American colleagues: “Amazing!! Great news!” First reaction in the French office? “Oh no, this can’t be serious, my birthday was last week/month.” Really? Really??!!

So I sigh and I think about how to bring this first immaculate “I love Paris” feeling back for my last 6 weeks in town. I’m guessing it will involve a lot of biking around, swimming on the Seine, going out in jeans. And macarons, lots of macarons.
And any of your suggestions too!